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Smart meter miscue sends man $962.79 hydro bill

B.C. smart meters at B.C. Hydro, July 5, 2011, Burnaby, B.C.

Brett Beadle for The Globe and Mail/brett beadle The Globe and Mail

Smart meters aren't, sometimes. For the first time, B.C. Hydro, under fire over the controversial wireless meters, has confirmed a faulty gadget although the utility calls the situation an anomaly.

But the NDP energy critic is skeptical. "I find it difficult to believe. It's the first one they have admitted to is the way I would describe it," said MLA John Horgan. "I have difficulty believing [B.C. Hydro]"

Hydro is admitting to a case that saw a Kamloops man receive a $962.79 bill when he should have been billed $181.12. Ironically, a meter reader figured out the smart meter was faulty during a routine patrol.

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"It was racking up large volumes of consumption, really out of the norm," said Jim Nicholson, customer-care director for B.C. Hydro.

"We see this as an anomaly and a rare occasion," Mr. Nicholson said. "This is a new technology, and any time you're launching new technology there's going to be a failure rate. We're doing everything we can to mitigate that."

Although a stop was imposed to protect the customer from being billed, he ended up with the big bill anyway. Last week, Hydro revised the bill to the lower, proper figure, Mr. Nicholson said.

At any time, it would have been an unusual situation, but it comes as the utility is under fire over its $930-million program to replace current electro-mechanical hydro meters with the digital meters that will eventually transmit data to the utility with radio signals.

So far, roughly one million meters have been installed. The goal is to reach 1.85 million customers by the end of the year.

Hydro has been standing by the smart meters as a means of saving money because the devices allow for the better management of the power flow.

However, there has been criticism about biological effects from the electromagnetic frequency radiation the smart meters use, potential privacy breaches linked to the transmission of data as well as increased hydro bills. In September, 2011, delegates at the annual convention of the Union of B.C. Municipalities voted in favour of a moratorium on installing smart meters. The province said it would ignore the vote.

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Only last month, the B.C. Utilities Commission dismissed an application from the Citizens for Safe Technology Society – critics of the program – to stop the installation of the meters.

Mr. Nicholson conceded the Kamloops situation comes at a challenging time around managing the smart-meter file. "The attention that is being paid to all of the focus on the smart meters as being the source of the problem is a challenge."

He said the utility has had calls from smart metered customers about high bills, but resolved matters after walking customers through their usage history. These kinds of questioning calls tend to double between December and April, he said.

None, aside from Kamloops have been linked to smart meters, he said.

"This is one meter. We definitely know it's there. Will we have others? I can't guarantee that we won't."

Mr. Horgan said the governing Liberals let slip an opportunity to subject the program to needed scrutiny by allowing hearings before the utilities commission. The Liberals made a decision on that point in 2010.

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If the NDP wins the May, 2013 provincial election, he said they will face a major challenge dealing with the program because installation will be completed across B.C. "The challenge for a future government is going to be unscrambling the omelette," he said.

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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